History Books

Sailing From Byzantium

Colin Wells's Sailing From Byzantium: How a Lost Empire Changed the World (Bantam Dell, 2006, 7) is like no other history book that I have ever read. It has the breezy and popular tone of a vaguely unreliable newspaper feature - unreliable not because any of the "facts" are wrong but because too many of them have been elided. Actually, Mr Wells appears to have done his subject scrupulous justice - but what, exactly, is his subject?

In the middle of the Sixth Century, the Emperor Justinian I waged war against the Ostrogoths who occupied the Italian peninsula, which had fallen halfway out of imperial control following the complete collapse of the Western Empire in the 470s. Although Italy was regained for the Empire, it was also wrecked for nearly a thousand years. Nearly a thousand years later, it woke up and began to reclaim its ancient grandeur — a development that we call the Renaissance. Now it was the Eastern Empire that faced extinction. Waves of learned envoys were dispatched from Constantinople to the burgeoning cities of Italy and beyond, to solicit military and financial support. A thousand years of poor relations, however, had irreversibly corroded what ought to have been (it was felt) strong bonds among Christians. Politically and religiously — two sides of the same coin — the old marriage of East and West in Christendom had soured past repair. The two cultures were moving, moreover, in opposite directions. As the humanists of northern Italy were gaining control of both secular and ecclesiastical institutions, the monks of Mount Athos were leading Orthodox Christians to the other-worldly bliss of the inward-oriented tradition of prayer known as Hesychasm. Long before the traumatic birth of Istanbul, on 29 May 1453, Byzantine prelates had been spurning what was known as the Outer (or secular) Wisdom — the legacy of Plato, Aristotle, and other classical thinkers — even as the Turks devoured bite after bite of imperial territory, until there was nothing more to the Roman Empire than the city of Constantine itself.

That spurning, the prequel, as it were, to the Fall of Constantinople, is a big part of Mr Wells's subject. One might have expected him to discuss the flood of Greek-speaking scholars and their manuscripts that poured into Italy after Mehmet II's victory over Constantine XI. But the section of his book devoted to Byzantium and the West all but stops with the career of Cardinal Bessarion (d 1472), finishing off with a coda about the Aldine Press of Venice. The effect is rather like that of picking up a history of the French Revolution and finding that its narrative stops in August 1789. Where is the story?

The story that interests Mr Wells begins a century earlier, with the attempt of one Barlaam, a monk from Calabria (a southern Italian region well within the Byzantine orbit), to demonstrate that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father but not from the Son. It is difficult, if not impossible, for people today to grasp the fury with which this point was defended and assailed a millennium ago and more. It is not easy to understand exactly what is meant, in fact, by the doctrine of the Trinity — and it never has been. But the so-called filioque clause served as the spike that finally clove East and West. Barlaam, as I say, was charged with defending the Eastern position (no "que"). He did so, however, with "an approach that was aggressively rationalistic, invoking Aristotelian logic to argue that matters concerning God could never actually be demonstrated but could only be rationally inferred." This landed him in the soup with another monk, Gregory Palamas. When the dust settled, Gregory was a saint of the Orthodox church, and Barlaam was the Roman Catholic bishop of Gerace — and, not very incidentally, Petrarch's Greek teacher.

In the century that followed, Barlaam was followed by Demetrius Cydones, Manuel Chrysoloras, George Pletho, and John Bessarion, an unbroken chain of Greek humanists whose visits to the West inclined toward permanent residency. Bessarion's library would become the nucleus of the Biblioteca Marciana in Venice.

Bessarion knew well the value that posterity would place on these books. For Chrysoloras, teaching ancient Greek had come second to saving Byzantium, which still seemed a possibility. For Bessarion, after the Council of Florence, salvaging the Outside Wisdom was the best he realistically could hope for. He'd built his collection over many years, at times almost desperately, but resolved always that as many of the classics as he could lay his hands on would survive the catastrophe of the Turkish conquest. Conscious and deliberate, his generosity was, with the rest of his life's work, part of a determined campaign to save ancient Greek literature by transplanting it to the West. There, he hoped, it might even promote a fusion of Greek East and Latin West that would re-create the cosmopolitan world of antiquity.

Although this was a world that no one in the East seemed to care about (regardless of the Turkish threat), it was the hallowed, if imaginary, center of Western aspiration. It still is.

The book's second section is brief but crowded. Byzantium and Islam turn out to have been about equally inhospitable to homegrown humanism. In these theocentric societies, secular views might be tolerated every now and then, but their roots were not deep, and Islam's role in the transmission of classical learning to the West had run its course long before 1453. By rights, this section ought to have come first, because the interplay between the two cultures took place while the West was sleeping through its Dark Ages. What Arab Moslems called "falsafa" - as practiced by "faylasufs" - flowered for about three hundred years, from the mid-Ninth to the mid-Twelfth Centuries. Throughout this time, however, philosophy remained culturally extracurricular, of interest only to high elites and the scholars they encouraged. The principal contribution of Arab thinkers to the history of philosophy — aside from simply preserving texts, usually in translations mediated by Syrians - may have been their grappling with the conflict between the secular metaphysics of Aristotle and the mystical revelation of Islam, which for all its differences shared a foundation with the mystical revelation of Christianity. Indeed, in the antagonism between the thought of al-Ghazali and that of Abu al-Walid ibn Rushd (known to the West as Averroës), even though these men were not strict contemporaries, we see something of the conflict that flared, much to the latter man's detriment during his lifetime, between Bonaventure and Aquinas. Aquinas learned a great deal from Averroës — the two most Aristotelian thinkers after Aristotle himself. Otherwise, however, the course of Greek wisdom in the Islamic world reached a dead end eight hundred years ago.

The final section, dealing with the Slavic world, will probably present a good deal that is new to English-speaking readers. From the conversion of Boris the Bulgarian to the immurement of Maxim the Greek, Mr Wells conducts a vigorous tour of Slavic Christianity, which from the very beginning countered its Roman cousin with a profoundly chauvinistic self-assurance. The author covers an extraordinary amount of ground briskly and with an unflagging attentiveness to personalities. There are no disembodied trends or developments to be found in these pages, but only a succession of more or less hard-hitting men, both in holy orders and out. Again, the story begins long before 1453 - long, in fact, before the mid-Fourteenth Century in which the Western section gets underway. By the time Constantinople fell, the redoubtable Ivan the Great was extending Muscovite sovereignty over the Russian heartland, not only throwing off once and for all the noxious embrace of the Golden Horde but proposing Moscow as the "Third Rome."

Sailing From Byzantium is, overwhelmingly, a book about people, which makes it very easy to read but also rather difficult to remember. Mr Wells takes pains to animate every face in his large crowd, but a large crowd it remains, one damned metropolitan (or emperor) after another. One of the few moments that Mr Wells uses to stand back a bit to contemplate long-term consequences stands out for its calm clarity. Mr Wells is writing about the legacy, in the Slavic world, of promoting a vernacular tongue to liturgical centrality — the celebrated achievement of the Ninth Century brothers, Cyril and Methodius.

As the Slavic dialects evolved into national tongues marked by mutual incomprehensibility, Old Church Slavonic carried on as the international language of the Byzantine Commonwealth. Only when taken up by the Russians, however, was this status ensured. Its unlikely ricochet success, more than a century after its near extinction in Moravia, helped seal forever the prestige of Cyril's unique and brilliant invention.

On the other hand, by allowing the Slavs to receive Christianity in their own language, Old Church Slavonic delayed their exposure to the rich pre-Christian past, to which the Catholics' insistence on Latin acted as a gateway for churchmen in the various Western European countries, and to which educated Byzantines had access by virtue of their expertise in Greek. Likewise, if Old Church Slavonic offered the Slavs their own distinctive idiom, it also isolated them from ongoing developments in the rest of European civilization, which expressed its high culture in Latin and Greek. In this way, the glittering legacy of Cyril and Methodius has been both a blessing and a burden for the Slavic world.

Later on the same page, Yaroslav of Kiev launches a failed attack on Constantinople (1043). The air remains smoky for the duration.

In one sense, then, Mr Wells's subject is intellectual history, but in another it is a kind of gangland romance in which the tribute and protection rackets demand religious allegiance rather than dollar-denominated revenue. It is in this second sense that we may find the idea of history itself lacking. By focusing on the fighters, Mr Wells inadvertently slights the achievements that were built on their victories or aborted by their defeats. But if Sailing From Byzantium seems to take place in a boxing ring into which contenders stream without respite, it is very difficult to complain about a neat little book that will undoubtedly capture the fancy of many readers who would otherwise fly from the very name of Byzantium — itself something of a byword for the hopelessly sidetracked — and that may even teach them a thing or two. Tthe more engaged reader of history will be grateful for Mr Well's organization of a huge amount of ordinarily far-flung information within a small space. I cannot wish that Sailing From Byzantium were a different book. But it has certainly whetted my appetite for a more conventional, even long-winded read. (December 2007)

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